Thursday, July 8, 2010

Letters to a Young, Middle-Aged, or Geezer Writer VII

Few warnings to writers are as fraught and dire, so filled with the oil-spill bubbles of intent as these:  Listen to your characters.

That warning often comes in the second paragraph of one of those close-but-no-cigar letters from literary agents or editors, an explanation for the first paragraph which, although respectful of your inventiveness and inherent flair for story, nevertheless is an expression focused on the word regret.

They fucking regret you wasted their time.  The implications are simple enough:  If you would listen to your characters, you wouldn't be in this mess and they would not be regretting the time they wasted on your inventiveness and inherent flair for story.

Of course you are at pains to want to know all about how to listen to your characters because, truth to tell, some of them are already a colonoscopy waiting to happen.

Had you been in one of my classes, I'd have given you some hints on how to put the old stethoscope up against their rib cages.  You have to know who they are, I would have suggested.  Which means you have to consider them an armature about which you wrap relationships, past experiences and goals, not frivolously, mind you, but to the end of being able to tell in about the length of a good Twitter entry what their agenda is.  From this point, you have to assess what they would be willing to do, however painful or distasteful, to accomplish their goal.  You would need to know their boundaries, because if you don't know their boundaries, how can you presume to push them over those lines they have drawn so forcefully in the sand or whatever the flooring is of their particular landscape.

Like you, your characters undoubtedly carry on some kind of interior monologue, until it becomes a dialogue, then an argument between at least two rival factions, say the id and the superego.  So you get them pushed into this kind of inner argument while you sidle up to them and fucking eavesdrop so that you have some sense of where they stand and how they feel about all the other characters in your story.

It might help you to imagine the characters are all residents of a third world country and you come along, a rich gringo.  Don't, please don't tell me how broke you are, that you still have your student loan to pay off or that Coach purse you charged on your credit card as a sop to your grief at breaking up with your boyfriend or the monthly fee you agreed to for eHarmony, which you signed on to when your last girlfriend dumped you because you'd been going with her for eleven years and still couldn't make up your mind, and now you've learned to commit, goddamnit, and would be willing to except that all the chicks on eHarmony who respond to your emails represent themselves as skinny and when you meet for coffee they not only want whipped cream on their Irish coffee, they're also thinking you could pop for some mince pie ala mode.  I mean, who are these people?  You have no such problems with the likes of Gatsby or Lady Brett; it is only your own people who seem somewhat remote from you.

So what you do is, after you figure out (which is a euphemism for thinking) what you think they want, you push the matter, using all the interrogative techniques you learned from watching the law part of Law and Order; you squeeze them until you find out what they really want, which is a step of two closer to the bone than to help people or give a boost to the unfortunate, they want to show someone who dumped them in the past how wrong they were, how they were keepers.  They want to get revenge.  They want to undo a truly dumb decision or get a re-do on an opportunity they missed because they were stoned.  Help me, Young, middle-aged, or geezer writers, work with me:  squeeze those fuckers until they tell you something they've never told anyone else.  You can even promise to keep their secret, knowing you won't.  But, as Huck Finn said, that ain't no matter.

You want at least one secret from each character as ante for sitting in the game.  Once you know this stuff, you can slip back to that W. Somerset Maugham view of yourself, so fucking world-wise and understanding of the the Human condition that it's all a joke we laugh at over cognac and cigars.  Except that some of your characters don't get along, they're the literary equivalents of Siamese Fighting Fish; you put them in a tank and watch it come sprouting forth like unwanted crab grass.  Put your characters into a Green Room before they go on stage.  You might even drop the hint that one of them is going to end up on the cutting room floor.  You have to stop being so nice and considerate or they will be all over your ass like students at a tenderloin high school, going after a substitute teacher.

"You think you're Henry Fucking Higgins,  I am so not from the greater Boston area.  I am so not from anywhere remotely near the greater Boston area.  Put that in your fucking crack pipe and smoke it.  I am from Lincoln Fucking Nebraska and I've put a lifetime's effort into convincing fuckheads like you that I am from the greater Boston area just so I can pull the rug out from under them the way I did with you."  Get them talking and thinking that way toward one another, maybe not on the page, that's too simple, but thinking each of the other in such terms, then watch what happens to them.

You start looking at them in this manner, you just might catch a good wave.

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